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The past year gave business owners a chance to flex their ingenuity and show the world exactly what they can do. In fact, many entrepreneurs not only kept their companies afloat, but continued to scale their operations despite the odds. What did these thriving businesses have in common? In a word, resilience.
Square’s head of sales, Ashley Grech, and Forbes senior editor, Maneet Ahuja, recently talked to four founders who are finding new ways to innovate, grow, and showcase their business resilience. “In times of constraint, there’s an opportunity for change,” says Grech.
These entrepreneurs found new opportunities to grow even when the road was unclear. Here, we rounded up the top takeaways from the conversation. Watch the video to hear more of their inspiring stories and advice to other business owners.
Go boldly into new channels
“When the pandemic hit, we were sold out of 90% of our SKUs,” says Deepica Mutyala, the founder and CEO of multicultural beauty brand, Live Tinted. So Mutyala moved fast, pouring her energy into trying out new channels like TikTok, allowing her to reach Gen Z consumers. “Everyone is craving some joy right now, and TikTok is lighthearted and happy,” she explains.
That move aligns with what Grech is seeing from Square sellers. “Consumers are expecting more options in the way that they shop,” says Grech. Likewise, Mutyala is giving her community those options by expanding her brand into retailers. “I will always say omnichannel is the way to go,” she says. “There’s something to that in-person [shopping] experience.”
Garry Cooper also tried out a new sales channel after seeing a need. As the founder of Rheaply, a startup that helps companies track where physical assets are located, he used his technology to help businesses source PPE, enabling them to reopen. “I had never thought about using our technology for PPE. We typically use it for big-business industrial equipment,” he says. But he saw an opportunity, and doubled down. “We saw an increase not only in our revenue, but in our engagement,” says Cooper.
The pandemic gave Julia Niiro, the founder of MilkRun, a crash course in scaling. Her weekly grocery subscription service delivers goods to consumers from local farmers and “it grew the initial 10X in the first eight weeks.” To achieve that milestone, she rolled out contactless delivery so her team could continue to serve customers throughout the pandemic. Her business also became a key sales channel for local farmers, helping them continue to run their businesses. “Eight percent of farmers were selling online pre-COVID, and now 87% are,” she shares.
Build a community
During shelter-in-place, Pinky Cole, the founder of vegan burger chain Slutty Vegan ATL, spent her time on grassroots marketing efforts “to spread a message that we can help people reimagine food,” she describes.
Cole’s approach to marketing is to stay true to her brand without using paid promotion — and it’s working. “We make people laugh, we make people proud, and we give them information,” says Cole. “You don’t necessarily need a whole bunch of dollars to market your business. If you’re creative and have forward-thinking people, you can come up with new ways to introduce your business to a new audience,” she says. Her work paid off: When the restaurant reopened, they had throngs of customers waiting in line for their inventive vegan burgers.
“People are just craving to be seen,” agrees Mutyala. Through Live Tinted, Mutyala is building a community of followers, and when the company couldn’t afford to hire professional models for their first brand campaign, community members stepped up. As a result, there were different types of women represented, which enabled Mutyala to stay true to her mission and build customer loyalty. “We didn’t have many dollars but we made it work,” she says. “It was a heartfelt campaign and I think that contributed a lot to our success.”
“It’s about finding new and interesting ways to stay relevant with your customer base that make sense for your business,” recommends Grech, Square’s head of sales. “There’s a real desire to support and shop local. Our customers are adopting our online options — QR codes, social media integrations, customer messaging — and those tools are thriving. Our businesses are not only meeting their customers’ desire for community loyalty, but they’re getting new customers through social and online as well.”
Hire your biggest fans
Hiring the right team is what’s helping Cole bring Slutty Vegan ATL to the masses while dealing with increased customer demand. “Continuing to bring in the right people, that’s the biggest thing that will help scale my company,” she says. “I look for people aligned with the brand. Because it gives us an opportunity to welcome in people who have stood in line before.”
Hiring fans who know the brand also increases employee retention. “I’m building an empire. And I want people to be a part of that village to help that empire grow, because I didn’t start Slutty Vegan to make money.”
Niiro has a similar appreciation for the importance of hiring, and was able to hire employees from the restaurant industry who were laid off or furloughed, which was mutually beneficial for both groups. “We would never have been able to scale without their knowledge,” says Niiro. In 2020, she focused on building a solid company culture, transitioning the business to be more about the employees helping her build it. “MilkRun is now about MilkRun and the people behind it,” says Niiro. “It’s much more than just me.”
Hiring key people also gives you the space to focus on other aspects of your business. “You have to learn how to get out of your business or you will never scale it,” says Niiro. “Do something else and hire and delegate.”
Stick to your vision
When there’s a new challenge at every corner, it can feel overwhelming. But tune out the noise and stay true to your vision, these entrepreneurs say. “It is so hard to not see everyone around and feel like you’re moving too slow,” says Mutyala. “Put blinders on, stick to your vision, focus on what makes your business unique, and really laser in on that,” she recommends. “Constantly reminding myself that I’m on my own journey and it’s unique to me has calmed me,” says Mutyala.
Niiro couldn’t let doubt get in the way when her company went into hyper-growth mode so early. “One investor said, ‘Are you ready? You’re going to have to learn in weeks what most CEOs learn in their entire careers,’” she remembers. And the importance of why she built her business continues to help her stay focused on bringing her mission to customers. “People recognized the incredible nature of our local food supply,” Niiro says.
Cooper also comes back to his mission to help him with decision-making. “Our mission drives every decision,” he says. PPE wasn’t on his product roadmap, but it aligned with his mission of creating a shared economy for innovation, and therefore made sense for him to pursue. “I think you need to have that heartbeat,” he says. “You also need this passion that you get up in the morning for.”
Staying flexible while clinging to their mission is what has enabled each of these four businesses to continue to scale and meet customers’ changing needs. “Every day we’re learning,” says Cooper. “There’s a plan we have, but it’s always being iterated on.”
To help celebrate businesses paving their way forward, we partnered with Forbes on the Next 1000 initiative to spotlight bold entrepreneurs and share their most valuable lessons. By sharing firsthand experiences, we’re helping businesses celebrate resilience, build skills, and explore what’s next. Learn more about how to apply to get on the Next 1000 list.